Lent 4: Cannot Unsee

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1 Samuel 16:1-13
John 9:1-41

One image from the readings stuck with me today:

I imagine the old prophet Samuel squinting down on (or up at) each of Jesse’s sons.

“Hmmmm….”

Our Old Testament reading about the selection of David as king of Israel includes God’s famous warning to Samuel: “The LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (v. 7).

And in the Gospel lesson, the formerly blind man tells the religious authorities the only thing he knows: “that though I was blind, now I see” (v. 25).

Last week we had water. This week, the metaphor is also as plain as can be: the ability to see clearly, or not see, as the case may be.

Really seeing, especially the ability to really see other people, has been a philosophical topic of conversation ever since there have been philosophical conversations.

Some people, society easily sees correctly. Others, less so.

My pastoral care professor, Dr. Greg Ellison II, literally wrote the book on caring for African-American men in today’s society. This morning’s Gospel reading is about seeing, not seeing, and in the Pharisees’ case a refusal to see. And Dr. Ellison takes us to the ways we refuse to see the marginalized, and the way the blind man himself was seen, in the first paragraph of Ellison’s book, Cut Dead But Still Alive. I imagine the blind man being described thus:

“Spared from the gallows of emptiness and impotent despair, the fortunate human soul finds life and the potential to flourish when noticed favorably by others. However, some living souls endure the woe of being passed over with no account. Like phantoms, they ache to be seen and heard. But, persistent un-acknowledgement takes a toll on their psyches. With shadow-cast faces, they teeter from explosive rage to implosive depression. Locked in an unending nightmare, their future hopes diminish, and the daily existence of facelessness becomes a cruel and fiendish torture. Herein lie the stories of the faceless phantoms, tramping through city streets, suburban corridors, and college campuses, screaming from the shadows to be seen and heard. They are cut dead but still alive.” (1)

Intentionally or unintentionally, we so easily pass over people, in different ways at different times. We hate, fear, and revile some, especially men with brown skin, based on how they look to us, while others, like women or people with disabilities, we simply disregard as if they have nothing meaningful to contribute. The results for those who are feared or passed over from our refusal to really see them can range from emotional pain to death.

When I hear what sounds to me like an indictment of the way I see people, I moan with the Pharisees,

“Surely we are not blind, are we?”

The Gospel talks of seeing and refusing to see. But it begins with Jesus seeing someone who was not seen. Like so many today, this blind man was quite literally cut dead but still alive. He wandered the world a beggar, unable to see, but even worse, a phantom, unable to be seen. Even when his parents are brought into the picture, they refuse, out of fear of the authorities, to even acknowledge that a miracle has happened to their son, who had become so desperate that he was on the streets begging. But Jesus does see him, and because God saw him, he got to see God.

How often do we, intentionally or subconsciously, refuse to see others?

For those of us with sight, this is the blindness that we could use a little healing from here in Lent, because it is the kind of blindness that can be deadly to others. But once we see such truth, once we really see people and their struggles, we cannot not see them.

A common Internet joke, used for good as well as evil, has been the phrase “cannot unsee.” In the Internet culture known as meme culture, which relies on short phrases paired with an image to make a point or a joke, “cannot unsee” usually refers to bad things seared upon one’s memory. But when I re-read the end of today’s Gospel story, saw how Jesus saw the blind man and then the blind man saw, and saw Jesus’ final exchange with the Pharisees — “we are not blind, are we?”, the phrase “cannot unsee” was all that came to mind.

Because Jesus sees the blind man, the blind man sees.

And then all hell, or all heaven, maybe, breaks loose, because a miracle has happened and no one can unsee it, the blind man can’t return to being blind, and people can’t pretend like they don’t know.

After being healed, the formerly blind man is then dragged repeatedly before the authorities as everyone (as my colleague put it this week) proceeds to freak out for thirty verses. Finally, at the end, Jesus goes and finds the man after he finds himself thrown out by the Pharisees for the smart aleck quip: “Do you want to become his disciples too?”

Biblical wisdom: If you’re gonna get thrown out for Jesus, land a good line first.

We know that Jesus went immediately to the blind man once he heard he’d been thrown out, because the Pharisees are still standing around when Jesus finds him. They hear Jesus say that he came into the world so “that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind” (v. 39).

In what reads to me as almost a rare moment of vulnerability, but may very well have been a cocky sneer, the Pharisees say, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” (v. 40).

Jesus responds, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”

In other words, you cannot unsee this.

The Pharisees have seen the eyes of the blind opened. They cannot unsee it. It would be different if they didn’t know, if they hadn’t seen it, or if they even claimed to not know why his eyes were opened. But they haven’t done any of that. They’ve thrown people out of the synagogue in spite of it. They claim to understand Jesus: that he’s just some crazy person. They deny the evidence and yet claim to know.

But you cannot unsee this miracle. This is the kind of thing that changes everything.
From tragedies to happy times, we all have things we cannot unsee, images seared into our consciousness forever. These are times when our lives changed forever, when we experienced truth or joy that changed everything. Hopefully, we all know moments like this that are good as well as bad: meeting a soul friend or a spouse for the first time. Or the first time you held a child or grandchild. There are also the bad moments that we cannot unsee: a relative’s face when we first learn of the death of a loved one. Memories of things we have seen: horrific accidents, disease, poverty or violence that changed how we see the world  forever.

Society as a whole has also had these moments. As recently as last year, there was the photo of the dead Syrian boy washed up on the beach, as the world had to come to terms with the violence in Syria and the plight of refugees. The images of the Boston marathon bombings reminded us of the reality of terror and showed us that it can indeed happen here. There are countless others from history: the man who stood down a tank in Tiananmen square. The children running from napalm in Vietnam. The Marines raising a flag over Iwo Jima. Dorothea Lange’s photo of the face of a wearied mother during the Great Depression. With television and the Internet have come videos of violence: from ISIS terror to police violence.

These were images we cannot unsee, seared into our consciousness forever, which opened our collective eyes to what was happening. After that, we could not claim ignorance. We could no longer claim that this sort of thing doesn’t really happen. We saw it.

In this Gospel lesson, being blind is no sin. The blind man is healed. It is claiming to see, but refusing to really see, that is the real sin.

The Pharisees do this with Jesus, and we do it to each other. We allow what we think we know to blind us. Whenever our pre-conceived notions related to gender, race, religion, sexuality, political identity, age, or any other factor cause us to cut others dead or simply dismiss them, they are a problem.

And in some ways, to varying degrees, it happens to all of us. No matter who you are, there is a stereotype of people like you that you deserve to not be defined by. I would know. I’m a white person from Alabama. And though there is certainly good history to be explored, white people from Alabama don’t always have the best track record in history.

Trae Crowder, a self-avowed Southern redneck with progressive views, first pointed it out about himself and the state of California where he’s recently moved, but it’s true of me as well: no one stopped me at the Mason-Dixon line and said, “I’m sorry ma’am, we can’t have your kind up here burning crosses in people’s yards. You understand.”

No matter who you are, there is a stereotype of people like you that you deserve to not be defined by. I’ve spent most of my adult life in Atlanta, but I also noticed that none of you Yankee types have burned down and sacked the parsonage, either. (Civil War joke.)

But the Good News is that “The LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).

This God-vision is what made Jesus stop and heal the blind man. Though the blind man was cut dead by society and by his own parents, it’s Jesus that raises him up to new life, not only allowing him to see, but making him visible.

We often think of God seeing us as a little creepy: as if God is looking over your shoulder to catch you committing a sin.

But we really need to let go of the idea that God is as petty as we are.

We are made in God’s image and seared into God’s mind, and God will not unsee us. The Bible says over and over that God sees, and God hears, and God remembers. God doesn’t see us to hit us with lighting bolts for saying cuss words in traffic. God sees us to heal us.

As imperfect as we are, God sees us to give us a new vision, to open our eyes to new life and new possibilities, for ourselves and others. God restores our vision, so that no one has to be cut dead, but so that all may be clearly seen.

We are raised to new life and new vision, able to see ourselves and each other for what we all are: beloved. And once you see that, your whole life changes, because what the Internet knows actually is true: what has been seen cannot be unseen. Amen.

1. Gregory C. Ellison, II, Cut Dead But Still Alive: Caring for African-American Young Men, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2013, p1.

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